Speech given at the ‘Voices Across Frontiers’ conference of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) in May 1996
I don’t know what I am doing here. I know nothing about radio. And listening to people last night at the hotel, about their various involvements in radio, I was stunned by the sheer variety, the sheer diversity, not just of radio but of community radio. And I wanted to take the next plane back.
But then, I thought that I might have something to say to you after all – because the work that my colleague Liz Fekete and I do is centred around a whole host of anti-racist, refugee and black communities in Britain – at all sorts of levels, the analytical, the practical, the campaigning, the organising – and, through that, creating small pockets of resistance, communities of resistance, as you will see from some of our publications here: CARF, the European Race Audit, Race & Class and this book, Communities of resistance: writings on black struggles for socialism.
As I said, I know nothing about community radio, so you will have to bear with me. More, you will have to teach me. But it is also possible that, because I come from outside-in, I could perhaps afford you a larger perspective within which your own work should be contextualised.
Of course I was brought up on radio, as most Third World people were, or still are, especially in the rural areas of our countries. I remember when the first wireless came to my village, in North Ceylon – some 50 years ago. I cut school that day and went along with my mates to look at the wonderful machine that had been installed in our local bakery. The owner twiddled the knobs with a flourish, showing his wide-eyed audience how he could bring the whole world to his doorstep. And suddenly he stopped, at an English song, though we understood not a word. A man was singing a song of his people that sounded so much like the freedom songs of our own – and he sang as though the big heart of the radio itself would break. And we listened spell-bound. The man was Paul Robeson. I was to hear him in the flesh at the Albert Hall some 30 years later.
What I learnt that day was that song, music, transcends language, and that songs of freedom, of resistance, have a ring to them and a vibrancy and a vitality – whether it’s ‘We shall overcome’, ‘Nkosi Sikele i Afrika’, ‘Vandé Matram’, or the ‘Red Flag’ – that transcends country and cause. But I did not know then that one day we will not only be able to receive songs, music, messages, communications, but that we will be able to send them too – transmit them – throughout our countries, to other countries, all over the world. Speak to each other, exchange ideas, come to know the common dimensions of our struggles, find comradeship in our common resistances.
But it was only when Felix asked me to speak at this conference, marvellously entitled ‘Voices without Frontiers’, that I began to reflect on the importance, the significance, of radio today – of community radio, people’s radio. For, in a world where the ownership of the means of communication – the press, the TV, computer software, even the Internet – is becoming concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer conglomerates, radio is the only medium that can break through that cordon sanitaire, commit piracy on the air waves and bring a voice to the voiceless. And the numbers of the voiceless are growing, the voices of protest are being stifled – by a rampant capitalism that spreads like an oil slick all over the globe.
Just stand back a moment, lift your eyes from the grindstones of your daily lives, and look at the world around you, at the massive sea change that is being wrought in society by the technological revolution. Look at the way we produce, manufacture goods – and look at the way that that affects our social relations, the way we live. Where are the huge big factories that housed thousands of workers in one place? What happened to the working class whose fights on the factory floor and in the community gave us our Factory Acts, Education Acts, our right to vote and even our so-called bourgeois freedoms of speech and assembly and religion. And who is doing our fighting now?
For, Capital is no longer restricted by time or place or labour. It can produce ad hoc to the consumer’s needs, ‘just in time’. Its factories are not fixed in place, nor does it need to aggregate thousands of workers on the same factory floor. It can, instead, take up its plant and walk to any part of the world where labour is cheap and captive and plentiful, moving from one labour pool to another, extracting maximum profit – since labour per se is increasingly dispensable, and racism decrees Third World labour to be particularly so.
Such emancipation of Capital from Labour alters the whole fabric of industrial society, desegregates and recomposes the working class into highly-skilled ‘core’ workers at one end and unskilled or semi-skilled ‘peripheral’ workers at he other, with the former being absorbed into management and the latter being gradually cast out into the semi-employed or unemployed zone – so engendering the two-thirds, one-third division of society characteristic of monetarism and the free market. And it is that one third in the rich countries of the West that is becoming increasingly poor, increasingly voiceless.
A similar division obtains in the Third World – except that there the ratio is the other way round: one-third haves and two-thirds have-nots – with the former identifying themselves not with the national interest but with international capital. So that what you have, in effect, is a new global order in which the world is divided into the rich and the poor – with the poor increasingly becoming a population surplus to capital’s requirements – marked out, more often than not, by race and colour. And it is that two-thirds of the population that resides in the Third World that are also becoming increasingly poor and increasingly voiceless.
We live in two worlds and three. In economic terms, two; in political terms, three. Global capitalism, as an economic system, divides the world into two, but global capitalism, as a political project, divides the world into three. The First World is still the dominant power, but the Second World, the erstwhile Communist Bloc, is its junior partner and the Third World the client state. Or, put it another way, the First World is organically, ‘naturally’ capitalist, the Second World can choose to be capitalist, the Third World has capitalism thrust upon it.
Trade no longer follows the flag: the flag follows trade. Capital has broken its national bonds and the governments of the west must follow in capital’s wake to set up the political and social orders within which it can safely and profitably operate. Not necessarily this time by force of arms, but by the force of an economic logic preached by the World Bank, sustained by the international Monetary Fund, effected by Structural Adjustment Programmes, and mediated by GATT and NAFTA.
These are the new agents of imperialist plunder. These are the new conquistadors who lay waste the Third World and move whole populations from countryside to urban wastelands and from urban wastelands to the inner cities of Europe – there to do the shit work of silicon age capitalism as cleaners and porters. house-maids and waiters, sweat-shop workers and piece-workers, and the peripheral, peripatetic, hire-and-fire-at-will workers of manufacturing industry. These are not economic refugees looking for a better life in western economies. These are political refugees fleeing from the devastation that western economies have caused in their countries. For, it is your economics that makes our politics that makes us refugees in your economies.
Hence, there is no such thing as economic refugees, only political refugees. There is no such thing as illegal refugees, only illegal governments. Political refugees are those who by definition have stood up to their governments – stood up for legality, democracy, justice. They are not illegals, but super-legals, who keep the flame of freedom flickering in a darkening world.
I and the governments of the of the west have absolutely no difficulty in identifying them as such, given the surveillance technology that enables them to have each one of us categorised, documented and docketed on their databases. That is the lie we have got to nail on each governments door by taking up the cause of refugees and asylum seekers – and, by raising our voice, give them a voice.
In a more philosophical vein – we live in an age when our voices are not so much not heard as not allowed to be heard – or are drowned – by pap music and pap culture, so that all we can hear is the sound of voices, not the voices themselves. We hear, but we do not listen, we do not ingest our hearing, we do not make it part of our experience. It is sound that is gone, even as it is heard, not a sound that is listened to and ingested.
Community broadcasting, therefore, must not only broadcast from the community but, in doing so, change the culture of hearing and receiving. Let’s get back to first principles. Radio is about sound, about voices, about hearing. But community radio is also about listening.
And community is not just about the community of interests but about the community of concerns, of social concerns. And therefore community, by definition, has to be a community of resistance. Communities are not pre-ordained, they cannot be set up by manifesto or prescribed by policy: they emerge in the course of resisting, subverting, defending. As a remarkable woman, Pat Partington, said at a head teachers’ conference in England, ‘by resisting we will refine, by subverting we will redirect and by protecting, we will create.’
Finally, the propagandists of Information Society tell us that it is information that makes the world go round – and that that information is available free to all and sundry – and we are therefore moving into a world of greater opportunity and greater freedom. Do not believe them. It’s still money that makes the world go round. Information simply lubricates it. And those who have the money, the media moguls – the Murdochs, the Blacks, the Springers – and the software merchants – IBM, Gates Cable & Wireless – control the information, control the air waves. Not Britannia but the Murdochs rule the waves – and we shall all be their slaves, slaves to the disinformation they hand out – unless we resist them with information of our own, communications of our own, communications of resistance to them, to the media moguls, the information conglomerates.
That is the function, the purpose, the raison d’être of community radio, as I see it. But to be that, to fulfil that function – because it is you who are the manual workers of the Information Society – community radio must be a free radio, a non commercial radio, a non-governmental radio. You cannot communicate freedom without being free yourself. And the strength of that freedom comes from the cause you serve, the people you serve, the community you serve. It comes from taking up small local cases in your community – whether it’s the deportation of a refugee, a black death in custody, a campaign to preserve your neighbourhood from the inroads of motorways, a crèche for children or basic rights for working mothers – and enlarging such cases into issues by broadcasting them to other communities fighting similar battles, and turning those issues into causes, and the cause into a movement.
It comes from a resistance to oppression, injustice, poverty on the part of local communities. And when these communities of resistance reach out to other such communities all over the world and when such communications of resistance reach a deafening crescendo, not even the halls of Valhalla can scarce forbear to hear.